A vessel typology for early chesapeake ceramics:The potomac typological system Essay

Published: 2021-07-11 01:45:05
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This paper is the result of a general dissatisfaction with the way in which archaeologists working on colonial Chesapeake sites (includ ing the authors) have typically analyzed their excavated ceramics. Historical archaeologists spend considerable time excavating, sorting and gluing together pots. Yet there is very little to show for it. save the contents of exhibit cases. While architectural data from a number of sites excavated in the Chesapeake are beginning to increase the understanding of the effects in daily life of demographic and economic instability (Carson et al. 1981) and of changing social relations between planters, their laborers and their neighbors (Neiman 1980; Upton 1979). it is impossible to cite any similarly systematic contributions based on ceramic analysis. The failure to impart much analytical utility to ceramics is the product of a number of factors. Some of these infect the discipline of archaeology as a whole. The lack of general archaeological theory’ and the failure to be imaginative make convincing attempts to con nect the things dug up with other areas of past experience very rare (Leone 1978).
Others are related to the often unhappy way ceramic data are cast once the pots arc out of the ground. Categories are employed which, despite fre quent assertions of an interest in past be havior, poorly reflect functional variation. The variety of such schemes in use makes comparisons between assemblages excavated by different archaeologists impossible. Finally, there is the failure to make good use of the documentary record with which we are blessed (or cursed). Antidotes for the fear and trembling engendered by the call to make interesting connections and to manufacture fascinating hypotheses arc hard to come byso too are remedies for archaeology’s theoretical defi ciencies. However, it may be useful to offer some suggestions about the categories used in the interpretation of excavated ceramics in the light of documentary evidence and about the use of the documentary record in archaeologi cal research focusing on ceramics. The immediate goal is to begin to systema tize the chaos in the categories used to des cribe excavated ceramic vessels and the assemblages they comprise, in a way that will make the cultural dynamics behind them more accessible. The Potomac Typological System (POTS) is the result. It is a first attempt whose ultimate purpose will have been served if it provokes historical archaeologists to begin to think seriously and critically about the analytical utility of the pottery typologies they currently employ. Discussions of typology have long had a central place in the archaeological literature. The importance of the topic is understandable for archaeology pivots upon the initial order ing of data. The disagreement that runs through the literature concerns how one brings about order. Does it exist in recover able form in the data, or is it imposed by the investigator (Brew 1946; Spaulding 1953; Hill and Evans 1972; Doran and Hodson 1975)? Since these stump-infested fields have been plowed before, an extended discussion of the issues will not be undertaken here. However, let the cards be laid on the table at the outset. The authors sympathize with the second posi tion; that all classifications are arbitrary. People impose categories, and hence order, upon objects to facilitate communication; this is as true of the archaeologist as much as it is of the people he or she studies. The theoretical underpinnings of this view, which has found acceptance in a host of fields from physics to literary criticism, runs some thing as follows.
Despite our everyday notions, our world does not consist of inde pendently existing objects whose nature is immediately known to the observer. In fact, this sort of immediate knowledge is impossible since any object, from a white saliglazc mug to a suspension bridge, presents the observer with a potentially infinite array of sensory data. If persons arc to make sense of this bewildering variety of experience, they must pick and choose, recognizing certain features as significant and disregarding others. Percep tion is a creative process. People of different groups construct reality in characteristically different ways. Thus, the “true” nature of the world is not to be found in the world itself but in the relationships which one chooses to perceive among the objects in it. An object is a mug and not a cup only because the observer chooses to recognize a rather limited number of features which make it so. Obviously, from the researcher’s point of view, there is no single best or true classifica tory scheme for ceramics or for anything else for that matter. It is equally obvious that dif ferent classifications can and must coexist peacefully if we are to make the most of our data. Any system will have limitations which can only be remedied by the complementary use of other systems. For example, there has long been a working recognition of the fact that technological and stylistic attributes are best suited to the definition of units of tem poral significance.
Termini post quem, marker types, and the Mean Ceramic Date are all dating tools whose efficacy turns on the chronological significance of ceramic technol- ogy and decorative style. But if pots are to be used for more than dating sites and the fea- tures on them, some attention needs to be paid to function. Given the primitive state of re search in this area, what is needed is a scheme which will allow the systematic description and comparison of assemblages and which, by attending function in even a crude way, will allow a preliminary appreciation of just what sort of functional variation exists between assemblages in time and space. Since direct evidence for past use of ceramic vessels (e.g.. knife marks on a plate) is spotty, the criteria used to assess functional variation must be indirect. They must trade on the physical and traditional cultural constraints on possible use. There arc of course several ways in which such a measurement device might be con structed. Archaeologists working on the colonial Chesapeake have long used shape to describe their ceramic finds.
All of these workers have written about cups, mugs, pitchers, bowls and who knows what else. By giving these items names, some sense is made of them (Tyler 1969:6). ‘ITie names are of course English,and. more important, the categories which  they represent arc those unconsciously employed in our own day-to-day transactions, often supplemented by notions inherited from late 19th and 20th century antiquarians and collectors. By naming objects from the past, they are made comprehensible in behavioral terms. They silently slip into our own familiar world so subtly that one feels little need for theoretical or methodological reflection. Problems can be expected. The most glaring problem is consistency. The pages of even scholarly works on the pot tery of a particular period show vessels that arc given the same name even though they have significantly different shapes. Even worse, two identical vessels illustrated on different pages may be given different names. If individual authors have a hard time being consistent, there would appear to be little hope for a group of feisty archaeologists. One person’s plate is another’s charger and another’s dish. If nothing else, this situation is embarrassing. Complacency in the face of this situation may be a product of the way in which most archaeologists have until recently reported excavated ceramics. Either a few particularly complete or spectacular pieces arc chosen for illustration, in which case the names given the vessels are unimportant since the vessels themselves arc there on the page for public inspection, or sherd counts by ware are pres ented for each excavated context, in which case the question of shape is otiose. Occa sionally the two approaches are combined. The interpretive possibilities of data cast in either of these two forms are rather limited. It is difficult to imagine why one vessel which has by chance survived the passage of time relatively intact should possess more be havioral significance than one represented by only a few sherds.
The relevance of sherd counts to the explication of past behavior is equally obscure. One needs to remember the obvious: the people whom archaeologists study worked with, ate from and drank from whole vessels, not the sherds the vessels would eventually become. If archaeologists are interested, at the very least, in the syste matic description of the way in which these folks lived, they need to consider every vessel represented in the archaeological record as well as some that are not. When the desirability of a systematic morphological description of the entire ceramic assemblage from a given period at a given site is recognized, inconsistency in the classification and naming of vessels ceases to be simply embarrassing and becomes intoler able. On a practical level, since one cannot illustrate every vessel from a relatively com plex site, some naming (and/or verbal descrip tion) becomes unavoidable. Under such cir cumstances, unless there is some standardiza tion in vessel nomenclature, inter-asscmblagc comparison is impossible. The need for cxplicitness to facilitate functional interpreta tion is one of the primary motivations behind this paper. The analytical morass attendant on such inconsistency has not gone unnoticed, and attempts have been made to rid the field of the problem. One solution has been to discard traditional names entirely in favor of two categories which at least have the virtue of being unambiguous: flatwares and hollow wares. This is the Stoke-on-Trent approach (Celoria and Kelly 1973).
In justifying this solution, its authors plead ignorance and understandable dissatisfaction with the fact that in recent numbers of Post Medieval Archaeology.А bewildering variety of vessels have been called dishes” (Celoria and Kelly 1973:16). The authors also suggest that the flat/hollow dichotomy is legitimate by virtue of its use by 17th century Staffordshire potters. Despite this historical validity, the wholesale acceptance of this two-term typology would send the baby out with the bath water. While the two terms may have served the potter’s primarily technological concerns well, distinguishing those vessels which were usually press-molded from those which were thrown (“reckoned by their dif ferent breadths … or their contents (vol- ume]”) and stacked or nested for firing and storage, by themselves they scarcely can be considered useful tools in the functional expli cation of an assemblage. In a behavioral con text. cups and butter pots, both hollowwarcs. have little in common. A second sort of remedy is to attempt to give everyday and antiquarian terms, along with the fuzzy notions behind them, a degree of precision.
Many people, for example, have called any two-handled vessel, roughly square in profile, with pint or more capacity, a posset pot. The name of course implies a very specific use, and the term was used in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it did not then apply to the wide class of vessels often described as such today (sec below). Small mistakes of this sort will inevitably distort the reading of indi vidual excavated vessels, not to mention the interpretation of entire ceramic assemblages, especially when comparisons with documen tary evidence arc made. Both the above approaches meet one cri terion for typological adequacy. They allow the unambiguous assignment of new objects to their categories. In addition, the Stoke-on Trent solution is adequate insofar as it accounts for the entire range of variability in the objects under study, and the second approach could be elaborated without much difficulty to the same end (and in fact has been by many). However, adequacy is not the sole basis on which a typology should be evaluated (Binford 1972:247). While any adequate typology allows the systematic description of similarities and differences between assem blages. not all arc equally well equipped to make possible insights into the significance of this variability in the context in which the objects themselves were used. POTS is one attempt to circumvent these problems.
The distinctions made by colonial Virginians and Marylanders who named and described their neighbor’s possessions in probate inventories were used as clues to where breaks of possible functional signifi cance occur along the continuum of formal variation. The characterizations of contem porary terms which POTS offers were arrived at by considering variation in adjectives applied to the terms in a sample of Virginia and Maryland inventories and descriptions (verbal and pictorial) of the terms’ referents in other contemporary sources. The categories used by inventory takers appear to have been based largely on three dimensions of formal variation: shape, size and ware. Since the categories resulting from the intersection of these dimensions successfully mediated people’s everyday interactions (behavior) with the objects denoted, they can serve as a reasonable basis for the construction of a functionally sensitive typology. Descriptions of the categories which comprise POTS provide a glossary for terms encountered in inven tories. making more accurate comparisons between excavated and inventoried ceramic assemblages possible.

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